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Art goes to war

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 19, 2012 06:15 PM

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fort cropped.jpg

Next time you find yourself defending a besieged city, bear this in mind: That toy model being smuggled across enemy lines might bring about your downfall.

That’s the takeaway message from a delightful historical anecdote recently recounted at BLDGBLOG. The post draws on a new book by architectural historian Massimo Scolari called “Oblique Drawing” that includes a footnote about the 1529 siege of Florence:

During the night, Tribolo and an assistant secretly built an accurate relief model in cork, several meters wide, of the city and its fortifications. It was smuggled out of the besieged city in various pieces concealed inside bales of wool. This allowed the pope, aided by Baldassarre Peruzzi, to direct operations from a distance.

The ruse worked. After laying siege for 10 months, papal forces—aided by their cork model—retook the renegade Republic of Florence on August 10, 1530. Tribolo, the creator of the model, went on to enjoy a life of patronage under the grateful, reinstalled Medici.

Art has often been a tool of espionage, as it turns out. In “Oblique Drawing” Scolari tells of Goethe, who in 1786 had a sketch he’d made of an abandoned castle confiscated by suspicious Italian authorities, and of 16th-century “painter-spies” who used their occupation as a cover to depict enemy fortifications. (Physical models, such as the Florentine cork relief or the sandstone carving of Jaisalmer Fort in India shown above, were particularly rich sources of information in the pre-satellite era.)

Over the years governments have caught on. As one commenter on BLDBLOG noted, it’s been illegal in Britain for a century to create art that “might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy.” And just this past September, two Czech video game developers were arrested in Greece and accused of espionage. They claim they were taking photographs to aid in the production of the war game ARMA III, while Greek authorities—perhaps wise to Florentine history—think they may have been up to something more.

[Image of sandstone Jaisalmer Fort, courtesy BLDGBLOG.]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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